Gone with the wind (Chapter 27)
On a noonday in mid-November, they all sat grouped about the dinner table, eating the last of the dessert concocted by Mammy from corn meal and dried huckleberries, sweetened with sorghum. There was a chill in the air, the first chill of the year, and Pork, standing behind Scarlett’s chair, rubbed his hands together in glee and questioned: “Ain’ it ‘bout time fer de hawg killin’, Miss Scarlett?”
“You can taste those chitlins already, can’t you?” said Scarlett with a grin. “Well, I can taste fresh pork myself and if the weather holds for a few days more, we’ll —”
Melanie interrupted, her spoon at her lips,
“Listen, dear! Somebody’s coming!”
“Somebody hollerin’,” said Pork uneasily.
On the crisp autumn air came clear the sound of horse’s hooves, thudding as swiftly as a frightened heart, and a woman’s voice, high pitched, screaming: “Scarlett! Scarlett!”
Eye met eye for a dreadful second around the table before chairs were pushed back and everyone leaped up. Despite the fear that made it shrill, they recognized the voice of Sally Fontaine who, only an hour before, had stopped at Tara for a brief chat on her way to Jonesboro. Now, as they all rushed pell-mell to crowd the front door, they saw her coming up the drive like the wind on a lathered horse, her hair streaming behind her, her bonnet dangling by its ribbons. She did not draw rein but as she galloped madly toward them, she waved her arm back in the direction from which she had come.
“The Yankees are coming! I saw them! Down the road! The Yankees —”
She sawed savagely at the horse’s mouth just in time to swerve him from leaping up the front steps. He swung around sharply, covered the side lawn in three leaps and she put him across the four-foot hedge as if she were on the hunting field. They heard the heavy pounding of his hooves as he went through the back yard and down the narrow lane between the cabins of the quarters and knew she was cutting across the fields to Mimosa.
For a moment they stood paralyzed and then Suellen and Carreen began to sob and clutch each other’s fingers. Little Wade stood rooted, trembling, unable to cry. What he had feared since the night he left Atlanta had happened. The Yankees were coming to get him.
“Yankees?” said Gerald vaguely. “But the Yankees have already been here.”
“Mother of God!” cried Scarlett, her eyes meeting Melanie’s frightened eyes. For a swift instant there went through her memory again the horrors of her last night in Atlanta, the ruined homes that dotted the countryside, all the stories of rape and torture and murder. She saw again the Yankee soldier standing in the hall with Ellen’s sewing box in his hand. She thought: “I shall die. I shall die right here. I thought we were through with all that. I shall die. I can’t stand any more.”
Then her eyes fell on the horse saddled and hitched and waiting for Pork to ride him to the Tarleton place on an errand. Her horse! Her only horse! The Yankees would take him and the cow and the calf. And the sow and her litter — Oh, how many tiring hours it had taken to catch that sow and her agile young! And they’d take the rooster and the setting hens and the ducks the Fontaines had given her. And the apples and the yams in the pantry bins. And the flour and rice and dried peas. And the money in the Yankee soldier’s wallet. They’d take everything and leave them to starve.
“They shan’t have them!” she cried aloud and they all turned startled faces to her, fearful her mind had cracked under the tidings. “I won’t go hungry! They shan’t have them!”
“What is it, Scarlett? What is it?”
“The horse! The cow! The pigs! They shan’t have them! I won’t let them have them!”
She turned swiftly to the four negroes who huddled in the doorway, their black faces a peculiarly ashen shade.
“The swamp,” she said rapidly.
“The river swamp, you fools! Take the pigs to the swamp. All of you. Quickly. Pork, you and Prissy crawl under the house and get the pigs out. Suellen, you and Carreen fill the baskets with as much food as you can carry and get to the woods. Mammy, put the silver in the well again. And Pork! Pork, listen to me, don’t stand there like that! Take Pa with you. Don’t ask me where! Anywhere! Go with Pork, Pa. That’s a sweet pa.”
Even in her frenzy she thought what the sight of bluecoats might do to Gerald’s wavering mind. She stopped and wrung her hands and the frightened sobbing of little Wade who was clutching Melanie’s skirt added to her panic.
“What shall I do, Scarlett?” Melanie’s voice was calm amid the wailing and tears and scurrying feet. Though her face was paper white and her whole body trembled, the very quietness of her voice steadied Scarlett, revealing to her that they all looked to her for commands, for guidance.
“The cow and the calf,” she said quickly. “They’re in the old pasture. Take the horse and drive them into the swamp and —”
Before she could finish her sentence, Melanie shook off Wade’s clutches and was down the front steps and running toward the horse, pulling up her wide skirts as she ran. Scarlett caught a flashing glimpse of thin legs, a flurry of skirts and underclothing and Melanie was in the saddle, her feet dangling far above the stirrups. She gathered up the reins and clapped her heels against the animal’s sides and then abruptly pulled him in, her face twisting with horror.
“My baby!” she cried. “Oh, my baby! The Yankees will kill him! Give him to me!”
Her hand was on the pommel and she was preparing to slide off but Scarlett screamed at her.
“Go on! Go on! Get the cow! I’ll look after the baby! Go on, I tell you! Do you think I’d let them get Ashley’s baby? Go on!”
Melly looked despairingly backward but hammered her heels into the horse and, with a scattering of gravel, was off down the drive toward the pasture.
Scarlett thought: “I never expected to see Melly Hamilton straddling a horse!” and then she ran into the house. Wade was at her heels, sobbing, trying to catch her flying skirts. As she went up the steps, three at a bound, she saw Suellen and Carreen with split-oak baskets on their arms, running toward the pantry, and Pork tugging none too gently at Gerald’s arm, dragging him toward the back porch. Gerald was mumbling querulously and pulling away like a child.
From the back yard she heard Mammy’s strident voice: “You, Priss! You git unner dat house an’ han’ me dem shoats! You knows mighty well Ah’s too big ter crawl thoo dem lattices. Dilcey, comyere an’ mek dis wuthless chile —”
“And I thought it was such a good idea to keep the pigs under the house, so nobody could steal them,” thought Scarlett, running into her room. “Why, oh, why didn’t I build a pen for them down in the swamp?”
She tore open her top bureau drawer and scratched about in the clothing until the Yankee’s wallet was in her hand. Hastily she picked up the solitaire ring and the diamond earbobs from where she had hidden them in her sewing basket and shoved them into the wallet. But where to hide it? In the mattress? Up the chimney? Throw it in the well? Put it in her bosom? No, never there! The outlines of the wallet might show through her basque and if the Yankees saw it they would strip her naked and search her.
“I shall die if they do!” she thought wildly.
Downstairs there was a pandemonium of racing feet and sobbing voices. Even in her frenzy, Scarlett wished she had Melanie with her, Melly with her quiet voice, Melly who was so brave the day she shot the Yankee. Melly was worth three of the others. Melly — what had Melly said? Oh, yes, the baby!
Clutching the wallet to her, Scarlett ran across the hall to the room where little Beau was sleeping in the low cradle. She snatched him up into her arms and he awoke, waving small fists and slobbering sleepily.
She heard Suellen crying: “Come on, Carreen! Come on! We’ve got enough. Oh, Sister, hurry!” There were wild squealings, indignant gruntings in the back yard and, running to the widow, Scarlett saw Mammy waddling hurriedly across the cotton field with a struggling young pig under each arm. Behind her was Pork also carrying two pigs and pushing Gerald before him. Gerald was stumping across the furrows, waving his cane.
Leaning out of the window Scarlett yelled: “Get the sow, Dilcey! Make Prissy drive her out. You can chase her across the fields!”
Dilcey looked up, her bronzed face harassed. In her apron was a pile of silver tableware. She pointed under the house.
“The sow done bit Prissy and got her penned up unner the house.”
“Good for the sow,” thought Scarlett. She hurried back into her room and hastily gathered from their hiding place the bracelets, brooch, miniature and cup she had found on the dead Yankee. But where to hide them? It was awkward, carrying little Beau in one arm and the wallet and the trinkets in the other. She started to lay him on the bed.
He set up a wail at leaving her arms and a welcome thought came to her. What better hiding place could there be than a baby’s diaper? She quickly turned him over, pulled up his dress and thrust the wallet down the diaper next to his backside. He yelled louder at this treatment and she hastily tightened the triangular garment about his threshing legs.
“Now,” she thought, drawing a deep breath, “now for the swamp!”
Tucking him screaming under one arm and clutching the jewelry to her with the other, she raced into the upstairs hall. Suddenly her rapid steps paused, fright weakening her knees. How silent the house was! How dreadfully still! Had they all gone off and left her? Hadn’t anyone waited for her? She hadn’t meant for them to leave her here alone. These days anything could happen to a lone woman and with the Yankees coming —
She jumped as a slight noise sounded and, turning quickly, saw crouched by the banisters her forgotten son, his eyes enormous with terror. He tried to speak but his throat only worked silently.
“Get up, Wade Hampton,” she commanded swiftly. “Get up and walk. Mother can’t carry you now.”
He ran to her, like a small frightened animal, and clutching her wide skirt, buried his face in it. She could feel his small hands groping through the folds for her legs. She started down the stairs, each step hampered by Wade’s dragging hands and she said fiercely: “Turn me loose, Wade! Turn me loose and walk!” But the child only clung the closer.
As she reached the landing, the whole lower floor leaped up at her. All the homely, well-loved articles of furniture seemed to whisper: “Good-by! Good-by!” A sob rose in her throat. There was the open door of the office where Ellen had labored so diligently and she could glimpse a corner of the old secretary. There was the dining room, with chairs pushed awry and food still on the plates. There on the floor were the rag rugs Ellen had dyed and woven herself. And there was the old portrait of Grandma Robillard, with bosoms half bared, hair piled high and nostrils cut so deeply as to give her face a perpetual well-bred sneer. Everything which had been part of her earliest memories, everything bound up with the deepest roots in her: “Good-by! Good-by, Scarlett O’Hara!”
The Yankees would burn it all — all!
This was her last view of home, her last view except what she might see from the cover of the woods or the swamp, the tall chimneys wrapped in smoke, the roof crashing in flame.
“I can’t leave you,” she thought and her teeth chattered with fear. “I can’t leave you. Pa wouldn’t leave you. He told them they’d have to burn you over his head. Then, they’ll burn you over my head for I can’t leave you either. You’re all I’ve got left.”
With the decision, some of her fear fell away and there remained only a congealed feeling in her breast, as if all hope and fear had frozen. As she stood there, she heard from the avenue the sound of many horses’ feet, the jingle of bridle bits and sabers rattling in scabbards and a harsh voice crying a command: “Dismount!” Swiftly she bent to the child beside her and her voice was urgent but oddly gentle.
“Turn me loose, Wade, honey! You run down the stairs quick and through the back yard toward the swamp. Mammy will be there and Aunt Melly. Run quickly, darling, and don’t be afraid.”
At the change in her tone, the boy looked up and Scarlett was appalled at the look in his eyes, like a baby rabbit in a trap.
“Oh, Mother of God!” she prayed. “Don’t let him have a convulsion! Not — not before the Yankees. They mustn’t know we are afraid.” And, as the child only gripped her skirt the tighter, she said clearly: “Be a little man, Wade. They’re only a passel of damn Yankees!”
And she went down the steps to meet them.
Sherman was marching through Georgia, from Atlanta to the sea. Behind him lay the smoking ruins of Atlanta to which the torch had been set as the blue army tramped out. Before him lay three hundred miles of territory virtually undefended save by a few state militia and the old men and young boys of the Home Guard.
Here lay the fertile state, dotted with plantations, sheltering the women and children, the very old and the negroes. In a swath eighty miles wide the Yankees were looting and burning. There were hundreds of homes in flames, hundreds of homes resounding with their footsteps. But, to Scarlett, watching the bluecoats pour into the front hall, it was not a countrywide affair. It was entirely personal, a malicious action aimed directly at her and hers.
She stood at the foot of the stairs, the baby in her arms, Wade pressed tightly against her, his head hidden in her skirts as the Yankees swarmed through the house, pushing roughly past her up the stairs, dragging furniture onto the front porch, running bayonets and knives into upholstery and digging inside for concealed valuables. Upstairs they were ripping open mattresses and feather beds until the air in the hall was thick with feathers that floated softly down on her head. Impotent rage quelled what little fear was left in her heart as she stood helpless while they plundered and stole and ruined.
The sergeant in charge was a bow-legged, grizzled little man with a large wad of tobacco in his cheek. He reached Scarlett before any of his men and, spitting freely on the floor and her skirts, said briefly:
“Lemme have what you got in yore hand, lady.”
She had forgotten the trinkets she had intended to hide and, with a sneer which she hoped was as eloquent as that pictured on Grandma Robillard’s face, she flung the articles to the floor and almost enjoyed the rapacious scramble that ensued.
“I’ll trouble you for thet ring and them earbobs.”
Scarlett tucked the baby more securely under her arm so that he hung face downward, crimson and screaming, and removed the garnet earrings which had been Gerald’s wedding present to Ellen. Then she stripped off the large sapphire solitaire which Charles had given her as an engagement ring.
“Don’t throw um. Hand um to me,” said the sergeant, putting out his hands. “Them bastards got enough already. What else have you got?” His eyes went over her basque sharply.
For a moment Scarlett went faint, already feeling rough hands thrusting themselves into her bosom, fumbling at her garters.
“That is all, but I suppose it is customary to strip your victims?”
“Oh, I’ll take your word,” said the sergeant good-naturedly, spitting again as he turned away. Scarlett righted the baby and tried to soothe him, holding her hand over the place on the diaper where the wallet was hidden, thanking God that Melanie had a baby and that baby had a diaper.
Upstairs she could hear heavy boots trampling, the protesting screech of furniture pulled across the floor, the crashing of china and mirrors, the curses when nothing of value appeared. From the yard came loud cries: “Head um off! Don’t let um get away!” and the despairing squawks of the hens and quacking and honking of the ducks and geese. A pang went through her as she heard an agonized squealing which was suddenly stilled by a pistol shot and she knew that the sow was dead. Damn Prissy! She had run off and left her. If only the shoats were safe! If only the family had gotten safely to the swamp! But there was no way of knowing.
She stood quietly in the hall while the soldiers boiled about her, shouting and cursing. Wade’s fingers were in her skirt in a terrified grip. She could feel his body shaking as he pressed against her but she could not bring herself to speak reassuringly to him. She could not bring herself to utter any word to the Yankees, either of pleading, protest or anger. She could only thank God that her knees still had the strength to support her, that her neck was still strong enough to hold her head high. But when a squad of bearded men came lumbering down the steps, laden with an assortment of stolen articles and she saw Charles’ sword in the hands of one, she did cry out.
That sword was Wade’s. It had been his father’s and his grandfather’s sword and Scarlett had given it to the little boy on his last birthday. They had made quite a ceremony of it and Melanie had cried, cried with tears of pride and sorrowful memory, and kissed him and said he must grow up to be a brave soldier like his father and his grandfather. Wade was very proud of it and often climbed upon the table beneath where it hung to pat it. Scarlett could endure seeing her own possessions going out of the house in hateful alien hands but not this — not her little boy’s pride. Wade, peering from the protection of her skirts at the sound of her cry, found speech and courage in a mighty sob. Stretching out one hand he cried:
“You can’t take that!” said Scarlett swiftly, holding out her hand too.
“I can’t, hey?” said the little soldier who held it, grinning impudently at her. “Well, I can! It’s a Rebel sword!”
“It’s — it’s not. It’s a Mexican War sword. You can’t take it. It’s my little boy’s. It was his grandfather’s! Oh, Captain,” she cried, turning to the sergeant, “please make him give it to me!”
The sergeant, pleased at his promotion, stepped forward.
“Lemme see thet sword, Bub,” he said.
Reluctantly, the little trooper handed it to him. “It’s got a solid-gold hilt,” he said.
The sergeant turned it in his hand, held the hilt up to the sunlight to read the engraved inscription.
“‘To Colonel William R. Hamilton,’” he deciphered. “‘From His Staff. For Gallantry. Buena Vista. 1847.’”
“Ho, lady,” he said, “I was at Buena Vista myself.”
“Indeed,” said Scarlett icily.
“Was I? Thet was hot fightin’, lemme tell you. I ain’t seen such hot fightin’ in this war as we seen in thet one. So this sword was this little tyke’s grandaddy’s?”
“Well, he can have it,” said the sergeant, who was satisfied enough with the jewelry and trinkets tied up in his handkerchief.
“But it’s got a solid-gold hilt,” insisted the little trooper.
“We’ll leave her thet to remember us by,” grinned the sergeant.
Scarlett took the sword, not even saying “Thank you.” Why should she thank these thieves for returning her own property to her? She held the sword against her while the little cavalryman argued and wrangled with the sergeant.
“By God, I’ll give these damn Rebels something to remember me by,” shouted the private finally when the sergeant, losing his good nature, told him to go to hell and not talk back. The little man went charging toward the back of the house and Scarlett breathed more easily. They had said nothing about burning the house. They hadn’t told her to leave so they could fire it. Perhaps — perhaps — The men came rambling into the hall from the upstairs and the out of doors.
“Anything?” questioned the sergeant.
“One hog and a few chickens and ducks.”
“Some corn and a few yams and beans. That wildcat we saw on the horse must have given the alarm, all right.”
“Regular Paul Revere, eh?”
“Well, there ain’t much here, Sarge. You got the pickin’s. Let’s move on before the whole country gets the news we’re comin’.”
“Didja dig under the smokehouse? They generally buries things there.”
“Ain’t no smokehouse.”
“Didja dig in the nigger cabins?”
“Nothin’ but cotton in the cabins. We set fire to it.”
For a brief instant Scarlett saw the long hot days in the cotton field, felt again the terrible ache in her back, the raw bruised flesh of her shoulders. All for nothing. The cotton was gone.
“You ain’t got much, for a fac’, have you, lady?”
“Your army has been here before,” she said coolly.
“That’s a fac’. We were in this neighborhood in September,” said one of the men, turning something in his hand. “I’d forgot.”
Scarlett saw it was Ellen’s gold thimble that he held. How often she had seen it gleaming in and out of Ellen’s fancy work. The sight of it brought back too many hurting memories of the slender hand which had worn it. There it lay in this stranger’s calloused dirty palm and soon it would find its way North and onto the finger of some Yankee woman who would be proud to wear stolen things. Ellen’s thimble!
Scarlett dropped her head so the enemy could not see her cry and the tears fell slowly down on the baby’s head. Through the blur, she saw the men moving toward the doorway, heard the sergeant calling commands in a loud rough voice. They were going and Tara was safe, but with the pain of Ellen’s memory on her, she was hardly glad. The sound of the banging sabers and horses’ hooves brought little relief and she stood, suddenly weak and nerveless, as they moved off down the avenue, every man laden with stolen goods, clothing, blankets, pictures, hens and ducks, the sow.
Then to her nostrils was borne the smell of smoke and she turned, too weak with lessening strain, to care about the cotton. Through the open windows of the dining room, she saw smoke drifting lazily out of the negro cabins. There went the cotton. There went the tax money and part of the money which was to see them through this bitter winter. There was nothing she could do about it either, except watch. She had seen fires in cotton before and she knew how difficult they were to put out, even with many men laboring at it. Thank God, the quarters were so far from the house! Thank God, there was no wind today to carry sparks to the roof of Tara!
Suddenly she swung about, rigid as a pointer, and stared with horror-struck eyes down the hall, down the covered passageway toward the kitchen. There was smoke coming from the kitchen!
Somewhere between the hall and the kitchen, she laid the baby down. Somewhere she flung off Wade’s grip, slinging him against the wall. She burst into the smoke-filled kitchen and reeled back, coughing, her eyes streaming tears from the smoke. Again she plunged in, her skirt held over her nose.
The room was dark, lit as it was by one small window, and so thick with smoke that she was blinded, but she could hear the hiss and crackle of flames. Dashing a hand across her eyes, she peered squinting and saw thin lines of flame creeping across the kitchen floor, toward the walls. Someone had scattered the blazing logs in the open fireplace across the whole room and the tinder-dry pine floor was sucking in the flames and spewing them up like water.
Back she rushed to the dining room and snatched a rag rug from the floor, spilling two chairs with a crash.
“I’ll never beat it out — never, never! Oh, God, if only there was someone to help! Tara is gone — gone! Oh, God! This was what that little wretch meant when he said he’d give me something to remember him by! Oh, if I’d only let him have the sword!”
In the hallway she passed her son lying in the corner with his sword. His eyes were closed and his face had a look of slack, unearthly peace.
“My God! He’s dead! They’ve frightened him to death!” she thought in agony but she raced by him to the bucket of drinking water which always stood in the passageway by the kitchen door.
She soused the end of the rug into the bucket and drawing a deep breath plunged again into the smoke-filled room slamming the door behind her. For an eternity she reeled and coughed, beating the rug against the lines of fire that shot swiftly beyond her. Twice her long skirt took fire and she slapped it out with her hands. She could smell the sickening smell of her hair scorching, as it came loose from its pins and swept about her shoulders. The flames raced ever beyond her, toward the walls of the covered runway, fiery snakes that writhed and leaped and, exhaustion sweeping her, she knew that it was hopeless.
Then the door swung open and the sucking draft flung the flames higher. It closed with a bang and, in the swirling smoke, Scarlett, half blind, saw Melanie, stamping her feet on the flames, beating at them with something dark and heavy. She saw her staggering, heard her coughing, caught a lightning-flash glimpse of her set white face and eyes narrow to slits against the smoke, saw her small body curving back and forth as she swung her rug up and down. For another eternity they fought and swayed, side by side, and Scarlett could see that the lines of fire were shortening. Then suddenly Melanie turned toward her and, with a cry, hit her across the shoulders with all her might. Scarlett went down in a whirlwind of smoke and darkness.
When she opened her eyes she was lying on the back porch, her head pillowed comfortably on Melanie’s lap, and the afternoon sunlight was shining on her face. Her hands, face and shoulders smarted intolerably from burns. Smoke was still rolling from the quarters, enveloping the cabins in thick clouds, and the smell of burning cotton was strong. Scarlett saw wisps of smoke drifting from the kitchen and she stirred frantically to rise.
But she was pushed back as Melanie’s calm voice said: “Lie still, dear. The fire’s out.”
She lay quiet for a moment, eyes closed, sighing with relief, and heard the slobbery gurgle of the baby near by and the reassuring sound of Wade’s hiccoughing. So he wasn’t dead, thank God! She opened her eyes and looked up into Melanie’s face. Her curls were singed, her face black with smut but her eyes were sparkling with excitement and she was smiling.
“You look like a nigger,” murmured Scarlett, burrowing her head wearily into its soft pillow.
“And you look like the end man in a minstrel show,” replied Melanie equably.
“Why did you have to hit me?”
“Because, my darling, your back was on fire. I didn’t dream you’d faint, though the Lord knows you’ve had enough today to kill you. . . . I came back as soon as I got the stock safe in the woods. I nearly died, thinking about you and the baby alone. Did — the Yankees harm you?”
“If you mean did they rape me, no,” said Scarlett, groaning as she tried to sit up. Though Melanie’s lap was soft, the porch on which she was lying was far from comfortable. “But they’ve stolen everything, everything. We’ve lost everything — Well, what is there to look so happy about?”
“We haven’t lost each other and our babies are all right and we have a roof over our heads,” said Melanie and there was a lilt in her voice. “And that’s all anyone can hope for now. . . . Goodness but Beau is wet! I suppose the Yankees even stole his extra diapers. He — Scarlett, what on earth is in his diaper?”
She thrust a suddenly frightened hand down the baby’s back and brought up the wallet. For a moment she looked at it as if she had never seen it before and then she began to laugh, peal on peal of mirth that had in it no hint of hysteria.
“Nobody but you would ever have thought of it,” she cried and flinging her arms around Scarlett’s neck she kissed her. “You are the beatenest sister I ever had!”
Scarlett permitted the embrace because she was too tired to struggle, because the words of praise brought balm to her spirit and because, in the dark smoke-filled kitchen, there had been born a greater respect for her sister-inlaw, a closer feeling of comradeship.
“I’ll say this for her,” she thought grudgingly, “she’s always there when you need her.”